November 2021: Adrienne Rich’s “The Observer” & Nirvana’s “Breed”

This month I’m choosing to discuss a poem by Adrienne Rich because she is one of my biggest influences. Adrienne Rich was not only an incredibly important feminist, but a significant poet. She redefined the poetry landscape by shifting from writing form-heavy poems to poems that contained a more personal voice and rhythm. I first discovered her in my early twenties as a college student taking women’s studies classes; her poetry and essays completely revolutionized my thinking about what it means to be a female poet—and a woman. I’d always had a feminist sensibility, but through Rich’s work I learned how to articulate what I was thinking and feeling as a young woman. Now that I’m older, I’m profoundly grateful to have had Rich as a model for how to develop and mature as a feminist and as a poet. Her work is indispensable to me.

The poem I want to discuss is called “The Observer,” from Rich’s sixth collection of poems titled Leaflets (1969), and recently, a kind reader let me know that this poem was inspired by the American primatologist Dian Fossey, so I have made a few adjustments to this essay to account for that fact. “The Observer” is a good example of a short poem that contains a lot of complexity. Here is the first part of it:

Completely protected on all sides
by volcanoes
a woman, darkhaired, in stained jeans
sleeps in central Africa.
In her dreams, her notebooks, still
private as maiden diaries,
the mountain gorillas move through their life term;
their gentleness survives
observation. Six bands of them
inhabit, with her, the wooded highland.

Here, we get the image of a woman working alone as she observes gorillas in Africa. Reading this poem in the current moment, it might not seem all that significant. However, this poem was written in 1968, as Rich indicated (she always listed the year in which a poem was written). This perspective was incredibly innovative at the time; almost no female poets were writing from this particular vantage point: a woman doing independent work in nature “…her dreams, her notebooks, still / private as maiden diaries….” Second wave feminism was just beginning to take root under the influence of the civil rights movement and Rich had already begun to develop a feminist consciousness at this time. Here is the second part of the poem:

When I lay me down to sleep
unsheltered by any natural guardians
from the panicky life-cycle of my tribe
I wake in the old cellblock
observing the daily executions,
rehearsing the laws
I cannot subscribe to,
envying the pale gorilla-scented dawn
she wakes into, the stream where she washes her hair,
the camera-flash of her quiet

What I love so much about this poem is the fact that it makes such a drastic and interesting shift. It goes from a woman observing gorillas to the actual observer, who is imprisoned. This is because, in 1967, while Fossey was attempting to study gorillas in the Congo, the area was plagued by political struggle after the country became independent in 1960 and had recently been taken over by the military. Fossey was taken prisoner by soldiers and detained for two weeks until she was finally able to escape. In this part of the poem, it becomes clear that the imprisoned Fossey is reflecting on the version of herself that was free to do her work quietly whereas now she is forced to spend her days “observing the daily executions, / rehearsing the laws / I cannot subscribe to….” Rich was very much interested in women’s experiences and political violence during the sixties and all throughout her writing career; this is what sets her apart from other female poets of that time: she was unapologetically feminist and political. For me, those last lines are especially poignant: “the camera-flash of her quiet / eye.” It’s all about the female perspective and the word “eye” gets its own line precisely because of this fact. It’s not simply an eye, but “her quiet / eye.” Rich understood back then that much of what was observed came from male eyes rather than female eyes. And although we don’t officially know who the speaker is (Dian Fossey is never explicitly mentioned), that ambiguity also plays into the poem: who is the observer? At that time, the default observer was male and Rich was playing with that idea in brilliant ways.

This month I’m discussing “Breed” by Nirvana for a couple of reasons. The first reason has to do with the fact that I have not listened to Nirvana for many years and have only recently started listening to the band again. When I started listening to the group again, the songs came back to me in a very visceral way. In fact, I couldn’t stop listening to them. The other reason I’m writing about “Breed” is because it has always been my favorite Nirvana song and after re-familiarizing myself with it, I understand why. Although Nirvana was a rock band, “Breed” is a punk song. I encountered Nirvana at a young age (around twelve) on the radio, so I knew many of their songs. When I was a freshman in high school, I borrowed Nevermind from a friend and recorded the album on a cassette tape. I still have that tape. “Breed” is off of Nevermind (1991) which is the group’s second and most well-known album. The song itself is incredibly simple, but hypnotic. It only consists of a refrain and a chorus that are repeated. The song starts off with amplified guitar noise, the main riff that is very much punk (raw and simple and primal) and an aggressive drumroll. Here is the refrain:

I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care
I don’t care, I don’t care, care if it’s old
I don’t mind, I don’t mind, I don’t mind
I don’t mind, mind, don’t have a mind
Get away, get away, get away
Get away, away, away from your home
I’m afraid, I’m afraid, I’m afraid
I’m afraid, afraid, ghost

This song is a perfect example of what made Nirvana so significant to the rock music world. In general, Kurt Cobain described his songs as not really being about anything, that he would take lines from his poetry and use them to make lyrics; that often the lyrics were the last thing to be written and he didn’t give them much thought. This is important in terms of aesthetics. I think what makes Cobain’s lyrics so special is the fact that they point to a sensibility rather than a meaning. When it comes to “Breed,” the lyrics contain a punk energy to them. All the members of Nirvana came from the punk scene and Cobain cleverly incorporated punk elements into the rock song format. As a result, Nirvana’s music resonated with listeners in such a way that allowed them to enjoy the punk aesthetic without realizing it. Cobain made punk palatable to a general audience through simple song structure, repetitive nonconformist lyrics, and music that was imperfect and fused with raw emotion. No other rock bands were doing this at that time; punk was its own separate scene and generally looked down on by mainstream rock musicians. Cobain revolutionized rock music by fusing the two styles. Here is the chorus:

Even if you have, even if you need
I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed
We could plant a house, we could build a tree
I don’t even care, we could have all three
She said, she said, she said, she said
She said, she said, she said, she said

The chorus is interesting lyrically because it does serve as the glue that holds the song together. “Even if you have, even if you need” speaks to the idea of material comfort versus romantic desire, “I don’t mean to stare, we don’t have to breed” loosely plays with the concept of traditional coupling, “We could plant a house, we could build a tree” furthers that playfulness in regards to relationships, and “I don’t even care, we could have all three” makes the playful suggestion that we could have it all. “She said” is also significant because it signals to the listener that the song includes a female perspective in such a way that gives it a feminist vibe. “Breed” includes a solo after the repeated refrain and chorus that is very punk-influenced. It is less of a solo and more of a series of guitar sounds which plays with conventional notions of what a rock solo should be. The song ends with the chorus; the last three words are “she said…good” along with a fading guitar sound which is a nice closure. Cobain’s tone is a bit sarcastic and cleverly so, letting the listener know that the song is not to be taken seriously as a social statement about anything; it’s merely capturing a moment in time and it should be valued for the listening experience rather than any kind of constructed meaning. Again, very punk.

I think Rich and Nirvana have a lot in common in the sense that both the poet and the band shifted the consciousness of the mediums they were working in. Rich brought the poetry world out of a male-dominated consciousness and into one that included a female-oriented perspective. Nirvana redefined the rock music world by incorporating a punk sensibility that rejected conventional notions of what a typical rock band was expected to be at that time: over-the-top, obnoxious, and sexist. I think Rich and Cobain both adhered to a natural way of writing that reflected their personal experiences of what it meant to be a poet and a musician. Rich wrote poems that were wholly her own; they weren’t formalist and used pretty language: they were free-verse and used language that was political in nature. Cobain wrote songs that reflected his experience as being a down-to-earth musician with punk roots who did not subscribe to the rock star aesthetic. Both Rich and Nirvana have gone on to influence countless poets and musicians in such a way that allowed both communities to evolve on an artistic and creative level. They were political in the sense that they shunned corrupt mindsets that had dominated both worlds and taught others to reject prescribed expectations of how a poet and a rock musician should present themselves, that authenticity is more important than career-oriented success.

November 1, 2021